Yesterday from China, I did a long item on the utter inadequacy of standard press practices in the face of a person like Donald Trump. Everything about “balance” and “objectivity” as news standards rests on a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption about public figures, and about the public audience. For the public figures, the assumption is that they’re at least trying not to lie, and that they’d rather not get caught. For the public audience, the assumption is that they’ll care about an ongoing record of honesty or deception. But those assumptions do not match the reality of Trump.
You can read the whole thing here. The summary is:
- Unlike other public figures we’ve encountered, Donald Trump appears not even to register the difference between truth and lies. He lies when it’s not “necessary” or even useful. He lies when disproof is immediately at hand. He shows no flicker in the eye, or “tell” of any kind, when he is caught in a flat-out lie. Richard Nixon looked tense and sweaty when saying “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton went into his tortured “it depends what the meaning of is is” answer precisely because he was trying to avoid a direct lie.
Trump doesn’t care. Watching his face for discomfort or “tells” is like looking at an alligator for signs of remorse.
- Thus the media have to start out with the assumption that anything Trump says is at least as likely to be false as true. He has forfeited any right to an “accurate until proven to be inaccurate” presumption of honesty. Thus a headline or framing that says “Trump claims, without evidence, [his latest fantasy]” does more violence to the truth than “Trump falsely claims...”
Now, two readers write in with detailed practical tips. The first, from a reader outside the U.S. with experience in publishing, is mainly about journalistic practices. This reader correctly refers to Trump’s behavior as narcissistic, without assuming any underlying medical diagnosis. The reader’s predictions and advice:
- The mania for reporting every false or outrageous tweet as major news will eventually fade as everyone, including the public, gets tired of it. Smart people also know it’s a diversionary tactic and most people will eventually catch on. Smart people also know they’re lies, even if those persons are too partisan or embarrassed to admit it. Most people will eventually catch up on that front too. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There will be some settling down around the time of the inauguration, followed by a steady slide. People only have so much patience for temper tantrums. Narcissists get old and ugly, especially when overexposed to sunlight.
- In the meantime, less scrupulous members of Congress and appointed officials will use the diversions for their own ends. There must be continuous vigilance directed at these people as well and it might be up to the hometown media to be vigilant. It’s a great opportunity for ambitious young journalists to make a name for themselves, even if it’s stories about how Congressman Whosit rolled over and played dead. It is necessary to keep them honest. The hometown reporters will be the first to notice when someone is living beyond their expected means.
- Pressure on members of Congress will help to keep pressure on the president, in turn ensuring that they act as a check and balance. The media can then report White House news indirectly from that angle, even if they can’t get a direct angle.